Underwater Photography is Hard, Especially in a Graveyard.

Graveyard? Yes, a graveyard. The wrecks in the lagoon of Chuuk, Micronesia, are many and not all parts are accessible for removal of the human remains therein. Coral grows like wildflowers on these ships, tanks, cars and airplanes, and hides the skulls of the men who perished – sometimes. I thought going to Chuuk to see the wrecks would be a diver’s paradise, and perhaps for some it is. For me, it was disquieting. I am not comfortable with this much death around me, deep underwater in the dark. Though I dived the Yamagiri Maru this morning, I declined the tour of the engine room. My divemaster Sam said that the congealed skull and arm bones of the engineer could still be seen pressed against the glass where he died. I didn’t want sight that haunting me. You can only imagine that this mood is not conducive to concentration or learning new skills, such as working with a big fat camera housing and its contents. I tried, hard, but images didn’t come out all that well on this dive. It did not help that I was dehydrated and tired. I ended up sitting out the second tank dive from dizziness and honestly, I am not sorry. Maybe I am getting old, but my instincts said it was not a good idea to go.

Now, about this underwater photography I’ve been trying. I think I mentioned earlier that I have been hauling around a cooler chest containing 44 pounds of underwater camera gear on this trip. That does not include the weight of the actual camera or its lenses, or my suitcase, only the underwater equipment. There have been several unpleasant, wheedling, truculent discussions at the United Airlines counter at every point, involving the $100 additional checked bag fee that they seem to want to charge at every single leg of this island-shuttle journey, even though human beings in pressurized cabins travel for less on some of the legs! I upgraded to business class on the Guam flight (for $49) and it came with bag check perks. I saved $51 and got a meal.

All of this madness started when I had the idea of taking pictures of all the scuba diving I was going to do. I had thought of buying a cheaper camera than my professional camera and a housing for that, but if I had, I would have spent quite a bit for something I would not use often and a camera that I might not be very happy with. I’m spoiled by this best-of-class Nikon, and I wasn’t including accessories like strobe lights into the pricing of the “cheaper” choice. So, upon reflection, I called down to Los Angeles where you can get anything photographic for rent. There, I found A B Sea Camera and rented a large, heavy, serious camera enclosure, strobe lights, chargers, backup units, two types of “ports” (the bit your lens sees through), and zoom attachments. I also rented a wide-angle zoom lens from my favorite camera shop in Palo Alto, Keeble & Schucat. Some of the other divers said it looked like equipment out of “The Abyss”. All of this rental gear (insured, with a deposit) has been with me across Micronesia and down to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The whole kit came without a lanyard or attaching mechanism to my dive vest. That in itself was nerve-racking. I mean it’s not as if the deep blue sea has an easily accessible bottom if I drop this very expensive housing with my very expensive camera and very expensive lens on it. It’s almost as if A B Sea wants me to buy them a new housing, eh? I managed to borrow a hooking retractable line in Kosrae, and a latch hook and some thin rope in Chuuk, and finally another elastic line and a carabineer’s clip in Cairns. It was distressing to think about where this pricey bit of kit could end up!

To first prepare the housing, and the lights and the cables, you have to carefully remove several silicone O-Rings, clean them and their channels and their adjoining areas, then lubricate them with the correct lubricant and put them back in. You must do all of that without hurting or nicking the O-Rings in any way, all the while on the lookout for a grain of sand or a piece of hair, because that is enough to flood the housing and completely ruin both its electronics and your camera at once. That grand feat accomplished, you put it all together, with your camera inside it set pretty much how you think you’ll want it, test fire that, and then you submerge it into some water in a safe location near a towel in case you missed a seal. Best to find any problems while you’re on land and can immediately address them, rather than on the boat or worse, ten meters underwater. Assuming the camera stays submerged without a steady stream of bubbles leaving the case, or a big blob of water driven to the top of the housing, and assuming your camera is correctly set up, you’re good to go. Finding a safe place for this large, expensive unit on a boat in a third world country is easier said than done, but you’d better manage it. I saw someone else using a large thermal insulated lunch bag/cooler and I think that’s the way to go.

When you do get the enclosed camera to the dive site and it is handed to you over the side of the boat (oh please don’t let that fall!), the real challenges begin. Before you even think of descending, attach that thing to your vest! After that, take a calming breath and head down. Now, what are the water conditions and how deep is the dive? Is the visibility poor? Is there a lot of floating particulate matter in the water? Is the coral spawning right now? Is it sunny up top? What kind of thing did you want to photograph and how, exactly did you want to light it? Were you planning to use manual focus? The list goes on. Then there is the diving aspect of it all. You can no longer count on your feet to keep you steady or standing in one place and instead you must control your swimming to be as still as possible in the water while working with a camera, not touching (or killing) the coral despite needing to be nearly on top of your subject, and not kicking up any sand or dust with your big swim fins. You have to control your breathing so as not to hold your breath when you release the shutter or compose the picture, because if you hold your breath while scuba diving you can get a lung embolism (that’s bad). Breath control also relates to buoyancy control: if you breathe in a lot of air, you will rise, and when you exhale it, you will fall. That’s going to affect your photograph and maybe smack you into your subject and injure or kill the coral. The only up side is that your camera shake is minimal because the water will hold the camera for you just a little bit. Of course, now, you are moving, the fish is moving, and the ocean is “blowing” your subject around, so you’d better use a faster shutter speed or it’ll all be blurry. Of course, it could be all be blurry, or horribly speckled, anyway if the water is full of particles or if you cannot set your autofocus the way you want to or any other number of things. If you linger too long you might lose your dive group (bad) or irritate them, and you might use up way too much air because you’re not as calm as you might otherwise be. On the other hand, you might be diving with a bunch of people who are still learning and so kick up lots of sand, make a lot of bubbles, swim right on top of you, and otherwise mess up your shot. You never know. A lot can go wrong. A lot has to happen for things go right.

I had a few sharp images from the first dive in Kosrae, but it varied. The second dive did not yield anything at all because for some reason, my memory card did not fail over to the second card, and it said it was full. I had to hand the camera back up to the boat crew after about two minutes and just forget it, because I couldn’t break the housing seal to change the card. Once back on land, it was fine. Go figure. The third dive, in Chuuk, gave me some decent silhouettes of the wreck Yamagiri Maru, but none of my fish and coral shots turned out sharp at all, and it’s because the autofocus requires intervention and recomposition in most cases. It’s hard to compose and focus, etc, through a camera viewfinder with a mask on while trying not to swim into anything at the same time (and let’s not forget the dead guys…). I wasn’t sure what my problem was in Chuuk’s images, but the nice owner of A B Sea gave me some clear and definite help after I emailed a sample image. He was sure. I got the lights out and tried again on the Great Barrier Reef, but only on day two of the GBR. You see, I’d gotten to the hotel at 2 AM on the night before, and the dive bus came for me at 6:50 AM. I didn’t have the wherewithal to handle the camera housing. So on day one of the reef diving, I rented a Panasonic Lumix in a waterproof case case and used it instead. This was much easier, but with varied results due to the limitations of the settings, and the fact that the red focus light seemed to scatter all over the housing and get into some of the pictures. Of course, the images were not saved as “RAW”, so they aren’t as easy to successfully edit: they come already compressed and data has been lost. Still, I’m glad the boat had an easy rental because at least I got some images.

Why not more? Well, on day two of the Great Barrier Reef, somehow at depth my lens became slightly loosened from my camera body. I imagine it was not totally clicked in when I set it up, but it felt pretty secure to me. That meant that the electronics from the camera to the lens were only periodically in sync and so there was effectively NO autofocus! There was no way to get any good photos without autofocus since I could not physically use the manual focus (it was inside the housing). Too bad too, because that day was the best diving I’d had. I got partnered up with a guy who is a Navy mine clearing diver for a living, and he was an awesome buddy. I spotted what I thought was a nudibranch, and he, with his incredible control underwater, got right next to it and discovered it was actually two nudibranches, one on top of the other! I think there might have been new nudibranches on the way! We saw a nice big clam, went past some big and beautiful structures of coral, including a lot of bright blue staghorn coral, and there were simply tons of fish. I wish I’d had a working camera instead of a heavy and expensive piece of ballast, but you don’t always get what you wish for in underwater photography. In the big picture though, any day on the Great Barrier Reef is a good day, with or without photos.

My experience so far gives me a great deal more respect for underwater photographers. I had some to begin with, but frankly, I had no idea what was involved beyond a lot of strobes and expensive equipment. There was a photographer on the Australian boat who went so far as to actually feed a turtle to keep him interested. Talk about knowing your subject!

None of my success at all would have been possible without the help of a very nice young Australian photographer named Matt Shepherd. He was on a long visit at the Nautilus Resort at Kosrae and he took over an hour to sit with me, teach me O-Ring maintenance, and show me how my kit worked. We discussed the challenges of underwater photography, some basics to start with, and he was interested in how everything went for me when I got back. I cannot thank him enough. He was patient, kind, modest and refused to accept my offer of buying his dinner. I can’t remember the last time anyone was this helpful just to be nice and talk about a subject they liked. Matt probably saved me the entire cost of the rental because the contents of that cooler chest were pretty intimidating. I might not have been brave enough to try it at all without his guidance. Matt does a lot of underwater imaging so later I had a look at his web site. And then I was really blown away. His work is beautiful and different, he has won many awards and done several commercial jobs and gallery shows. If you’re interested, please have a wander to http://www.aquaseen.com or check out his most current work at Aquaseen on Facebook. It’s worth your time.

In the meantime, here are some of my attempts. They are shot variously with a Nikon D3 & Aquatica housing, and the Panasonic Lumix.

Lettuce coral in Kosrae.

Lettuce coral in Kosrae.

My fellow diver Jana in Kosrae.

My fellow diver Jana in Kosrae. Models are more cooperative than fish.

A school of Sweetlips, outer Great Barrier Reef

A school of Sweetlips, outer Great Barrier Reef

The turtle staring at the big camera - if only it were my camera!  Outer Great Barrier Reef

The turtle staring at the big camera – if only it were my camera! Outer Great Barrier Reef

Soft coral - what a difference a light makes.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Soft coral – what a difference a light makes. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Christmas tree worms in blue.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Christmas tree worms in blue. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Lucy the dive boat photographer feeding the turtle. See how much debris the others are kicking up?  And the red dots from the lower quality housing?  Outer Great Barrier Reef.

Lucy the dive boat photographer feeding the turtle. See how much debris the others are kicking up? And the red dots from the lower quality housing? Outer Great Barrier Reef.

Anemone fish!  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Anemone fish! Outer Great Barrier Reef

A mollusk in the coral.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

A mollusk in the coral. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Kosrae coral garden

Kosrae coral garden

A sponge (I think).  Outer Great Barrier Reef

A sponge (I think). Outer Great Barrier Reef

Finally, the turtle came my way when the others had gotten bored.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Finally, the turtle came my way when the others had gotten bored. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Anemone fish in Kosrae

Anemone fish in Kosrae

Chuuk at 70 feet down.

Chuuk at 70 feet down.

Corals on the hull of the Yamagiri Maru

Corals on the hull of the Yamagiri Maru

The bow of the Yamagiri Maru, I believe.

The bow of the Yamagiri Maru, I believe.

Coral growing on the ship

Coral growing on the ship

Sam blowing rings at the safety stop.

Sam blowing rings at the safety stop.

Some sort of gun part, now full of coral "flowers", Yamagiri Maru

Some sort of gun part, now full of coral “flowers”, Yamagiri Maru

Entering the Yamagiri Maru, over 20 meters deep.

Entering the Yamagiri Maru, over 20 meters deep.

Wet camera port on the waters of Chuuk.

Wet camera port on the waters of Chuuk.

Testing for the first camera handoff underwater in Kosrae

Testing for the first camera handoff underwater in Kosrae

Kosrae coral head

Kosrae coral head

Anemone, fish & divers, Kosrae

Anemone, fish & divers, Kosrae

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One Response to Underwater Photography is Hard, Especially in a Graveyard.

  1. Your pictures are amazing, Jen… so fun to see! If you are ever wondering about a gift for me, I’d love a small framed copy of your turtle friend!! 🙂

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